As a highly infectious coronavirus variant surges nationwide, 56 of the 58 counties in California are grappling with high levels of Covid transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But only one of them is planning to reinstate an indoor mask mandate.
While health officers nationwide are largely shying away from new restrictions during this latest Covid wave, Los Angeles County health officials hope that asking people to mask up will curb the virus’s spread as well as growing hospitalization and death rates.
Already, more than 4,400 people have died of Covid-related causes in 2022, far more than the number who die from flu or motor vehicle accidents annually, said the Los Angeles County public health director, Barbara Ferrer.
“Covid is still one of the leading causes of death in L.A. County,” Ferrer said in a press briefing on Thursday. “Every day when I report out who dies, there are people who die who have no underlying health conditions. So no one should not go into a space of saying, ‘I’m not at any risk.’ Because that’s just absolutely not true.”
The mask mandate is expected to take effect July 29 absent a sudden turnaround in Covid tracking metrics. It would apply to indoor shops, offices, events, schools and more. The order would be rescinded once case levels begin to drop again.
Some experts disagree with Ferrer’s approach and believe that mandates should be reserved for crises, which the BA.5 wave has not yet proved itself to be. I spoke with Ferrer by phone about her thinking behind the proposed mask mandate.
Here is our conversation, edited for clarity and space:
Almost all of California is dealing with high Covid transmission and has been for weeks. But other than Alameda County (which put in a mask mandate and then quickly rescinded it), no other county seems to be instating new restrictions. Why is Los Angeles going in a different direction?
We’ve always been very concerned about the disproportionate impact of Covid, particularly on people who are living in communities with higher rates of poverty, and on Black and brown residents. Every time we have a significant increase in our cases, our hospitalization and death numbers reflect this disproportionality.
I don’t think we should be settling for high mortality that disproportionately affects people who have less economic means and people of color. And masking remains a strategy that layers in protections when transmission is high.
I’m like everyone else: I hate wearing that mask. But more than that, I hate the idea that I might accidentally transmit to somebody else. And I hate the idea that I’m not taking a simple step to layer in protections in my community.
I’m not sure why other people feel comfortable sort of doing nothing when cases are going up this dramatically. And, while we’re nowhere near overwhelming the health care system the way we were before, we’re having significant numbers of people hospitalized and we still have, tragically, people dying. There’s something we can do to actually try to get those numbers lower. It’s one thing if you can’t do anything, but we actually have things we can do.
When you say you’re not sure why other people feel comfortable with inaction, do you mean regular citizens in Los Angeles County or public health officials in other places?
I just mean in general, with everyone. I don’t want to call out any particular sectors. But I’m looking at our data and I still think there are too many people dying of Covid. And if that’s the case, and you have fairly straightforward sensible actions you can take that are not disruptive, then we should take them.
That’s my biggest fear — that we’re so anxious to be done with this virus that we’re getting complacent.
I regularly see people in Los Angeles packing into indoor spaces without masks, seemingly unconcerned about Covid. Do you think people will actually follow a mask mandate?
I think there’s a lot of people out there that, because it’s not a health officer requirement at the moment, feel like masking isn’t essential. I think for a very large number of people a mandate will be an indication that it’s time to go ahead and layer in an additional safety measure.
But you’re absolutely right. There will be some people — and we’re a large county, so that will translate into many people — who won’t agree and won’t want to do this. My hope is that certainly in places where there’s businesses and there’s lots of exposures to workers that our work force will get protected and they’ll be offered respirator masks so that they can deal with the fact that they might have many, many exposures during the course of the day. And that patrons of places will also take note of the fact that we have an opportunity to keep other people safe.
We’ve all heard that the BA.5 variant is the most contagious yet. It seems as though that’s contributed to a sense of futility, with people thinking they’re going to get it somehow, so they might as well stop trying to avoid it. How are you thinking about that?
Even in my own family when we discuss this they’re like, “Oh, come on, everyone’s getting it. What are you thinking?” I’m thinking, first of all, everyone isn’t getting it.
You still have millions and millions of people here that have not yet gotten infected. It’s not inevitable that people are going to get infected. And one thing that we’ve always known is that slowing down transmission just helps us reduce stress elsewhere. It helps reduce disruptions at work. Our emergency departments are now complaining because they’ve seen pretty big increases. Urgent cares are complaining. So anything you can do to sort of mitigate the steepness of that increase in cases is always going to be helpful.
So I’m going to continue to advocate for slowing the spread. Slowing the spread is still a meaningful strategy, even when we have these highly infectious variants that are circulating.
Tell us: Do you want mask mandates to return? Email us at [email protected] with your opinions. Please include your name and where you live.
Comic-Con issued a mask mandate for next week’s event in San Diego.
Check Covid case rates where you live.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Lisa Kirk Colburn, who lives in Cambridge, Mass.:
“Montecito is a charming destination for long walks on Butterfly Beach at low tide. The historic Santa Barbara is only a 10-minute drive away. Montecito is a real getaway from crazy. The gorgeous sky, its beautiful light and the quiet make it worth the trip. And it’s only a 1.5-hour drive from LAX. Worth the trip!”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
And before you go, some good news
My colleague Shira Ovide recently published lovely tales of ways that technology is helping people unleash their creativity or discover new joys. Technology, she reminds us, isn’t all bad.
In her newsletter On Tech, Shira shared stories of parents and children bonding through Spotify playlists and teachers using podcasts to engage their students. I particularly liked this submission from Ann McLaughlin, a reader who lives in Carmel:
“My morning stroll down the driveway to retrieve the newspaper has been transformed by the Merlin Bird ID app.
A daily chore has become a joy. Now, instead of ignoring the sounds around me, I’m able to focus on and identify the bird songs I’m hearing. The birds vary with their seasonal migration patterns, so the sounds are ever-changing. It’s become a meditation of sorts.”